Careers clinic

One of the people on a team I manage made a costly mistake recently. I’m worried about him becoming demoralised, so what’s the best way to manage it?

The first thing to realise is that this shouldn’t be too much about finger pointing. You need to acknowledge a mistake has been made, but do it in a supportive way, otherwise this person will freeze up, lose all confidence, and make more mistakes.

The two of you need to sit down and talk about what’s happened, and try to do this in a collaborative way. Look at the wider picture beyond this one mistake – if he’s overrun with work, is an extra pair of hands needed? Is extra training required? Do they really have all the tools to carry out this kind of job?

You need to do this with a light touch. If you dive in and start picking fault, even if you think you’re being relatively sympathetic, it may simply undermine their confidence further if you’re not being constructive with it. It’s a great opportunity to draw a positive from a negative if you can show support and concern, and if you clear away some communication cobwebs you can actually get a more loyal and enthusiastic employee afterwards.

As well as losing confidence and therefore being less effective, the fear for this person will be that his card is marked, and that his career opportunities will be affected. You don’t have to shy away from acknowledging that something has gone wrong but put it in proportion. That means you need to also be aware of the positive things that he has achieved. You can put them at ease by emphasising his positive contributions and show him how you want him to continue to be part of the team.

That’s particularly important if he’s becoming demoralised. It’s much easier for us to focus on the negative as a kind of safety mechanism to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and if he feels humiliated with it, it will drag him down. The danger going forward is that he will interpret other things in the workplace in a negative light – and that’s a danger for you as his manager too, if your opinion of this person has been fundamentally affected. Neither of you should allow yourselves to see this as part of a pattern if really it is a one-off error.

Nevertheless, you do need to be realistic in recognising the problem. Arrange to have a catch-up in a couple of weeks to make sure everything’s on track. This needs to be an ongoing process in the short-to-medium term. In the meantime, don’t be tempted to micromanage him – if someone’s being overly scrutinised that will just accentuate their concerns, chip away at their confidence, and they’ll feel more pressured, negative and make mistakes.